Cast: Varun Tej, Suniel Shetty, Saiee Manjrekar, Jagapathi Babu
Director: Kiran Korrapati
While watching Ghani, I was constantly thinking about Puri Jagannadh's Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi (ANOTA) which was released in 2002. Like Ghani, that too was a boxing drama between angry sons and boxer fathers. But ANOTA had ample drama and the boxing was a canvas upon which the drama played out. The father and son settled their differences using boxing. So despite that film's low production values, the audiences were so hooked to the father and son drama where they were both the heroes and villains in each other's lives that it clicked and became such an enjoyable movie.
Kiran Korrapati's Ghani on the other hand commits the fatal mistake of first trying to tell a personal story and then pivoting to tell the story about hardships in the boxing industry. We are told young boxers don't have the proper equipment, there are corrupt match-fixers and brands who dilute the genuineness of the game, and that the lack of gold medals for India is because of a lack of adequate funding. If it chose a Shankar-esque clean the system vigilante story and set in the world of boxing, it might have worked.
But Ghani is tonally off because it begins with the story of Ghani (Varun Tej), a son of a disgraced boxer who costs the state of Andhra Pradesh the chance to participate in the national level events. Upon being humiliated, the family relocates and the father becomes absent in their lives. (I'm deliberately being cryptic about the father because the film has a twist up its sleeve which is probably the only thing about the film that works so I don't want to ruin it).
Ghani's mother (Nadia) makes him promise that he would never take up boxing as a career option. But Ghani breaks the promise immediately and keeps it a secret from his mother. Does Ghani become a professional boxer who can avenge and clear his family name in the world of boxing? Does his mother find out?
These are the questions that the film wants us to think it answers over the course of 150 minutes. But no.
It veers into the struggles of boxers and the boxing industry after the interval mark. It then realizes it's strayed a different path and comes back to Ghani's personal life before going back to cleaning the system. Except here the system is represented by a Lalit Modi-esque character called Eshwar played by Jagapathi Babu who seems too tired to even ham it up. In a few scenes, it looks like he wants to leave the frame and not accept the cheque because of how clichéd his part feels.
Although the world of boxing is not a common theme in the culture and pop culture of Telugu audiences, the physicality of boxing seems to suit the grammar of machismo of Telugu cinema. The punches, the need for grit, the rivalries and the need for revenge are all threads that both mainstream Telugu cinema and boxing share. So Ghani just needed to get its story and drama right. They don't even need to look as far as Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull or even Telugu cinema's ANOTA and Thammudu for references. Look at films in the last ten years.
Ryan Coogler's Creed too told the story of a man struggling to follow the footsteps of his father and turning to his father's old rival-cum-friend for guidance. Next door, Pa Ranjith's excellent Sarpatta Parambarai, despite its long third act, wove life and nativity into the world of boxing. It never felt generic even though it told the clichéd story of an underdog rising, falling and rising again. That film immersed us into its world.
Also Read: Best Sports Dramas In Telugu
But Ghani is too scared to take any risks and ends up being far too generic. It wants a "love" track so it wastes Saiee Manjrekar as Maya meaning illusion. That seems apt because you see her for about the first half an hour in the film and then she disappears and I was left wondering if she really was there. I can't believe that in 2022 we are still having roles where the heroine is just a walking emoji. I'm not saying that other films have written perfect characters for women but it's been a while since a film flaunted how generic and outdated its lead female protagonist is.
Similarly, there's a wooden Suniel Shetty who seems so out of place in this world. If this was a Hindi film, I can understand why casting him for this Rocky Balboa meets Boxer Vijender Singh character would have been a fun thought. But why him in Telugu when he can't dub for himself and the Telugu diction and dubbing for him is weak, and his face has the emotional range of a punching bag. This is not his fault because the film doesn't offer him much other than to be a celebration of his woodenness.
The biggest disappointment is how the film uses Upendra who could have been such a powerhouse in a film about boxing. The film has a fun entry for him and it looks like the film might pick its socks up from that point on, but it becomes worse. Most of his scenes have a very school-play-like quality where the actors are standing in broad semicircles and Upendra talks just looking above the audience (camera). Also, when an actor like him is known for the wild, uncontrolled energy he offers, why tame him in such a bland "earnest" part?
But the film's disappointing moments were not its funniest. That honor went to two moments and I am not able to choose the funniest between the two. It was either the moment where Eshwar says with a straight face "Nenu laya kaarudni ra" (I am Shiva who can destroy) or it was Tamannaah Bhatia appearing in a boxing-themed item song (I wish this was Maya too) in the middle of a tournament that we've been told is the tournament Ghani has been looking forward to his whole life.
The film is clichéd where it shouldn't be and it's hilarious where it doesn't want to be. To use a clichéd boxing term in the film's honor, the only knockout punch in the film was the one the audience received while watching the film.